On some social media platforms I describe myself as a writer and a photographer. That recently led to an interesting question. I was asked:
“Do you shoot photographs the same way you write? Do you write like you shoot photos?”
My response was pretty simple: Never thought about it. And then, of course, I started thinking about it. I probably spent most of an afternoon thinking about it. Well, that’s not really accurate. I thought about it off and on for an afternoon. Because that’s a thing I do; I think about stuff.
My first thought was: Well, maybe I do. I mean, it was worth considering. Both writing and photography are vehicles for self-expression. They’re both grounded in craft rather than art, although they’re amenable to art. Do I need to go into the difference between art and craft? I suppose I do…but briefly. Basically, craft is about structured skills that can be learned whereas art is about unstructured imagination. I think that’s brief enough.
Anybody of average intelligence can learn the skills involved in writing and photography, stuff like the mechanics of grammar or the mechanics of exposure, or how to use punctuation in a sentence or determine an image’s depth of field. So in that sense, sure, I write and shoot photos in the same way. Learn the skills, apply them to the work.
But there’s a lot more to fiction than being able to correctly write a complete sentence; there’s a lot more to creative photography than being able to correctly expose a photo. It all comes down to composition: 1) choosing what gets included, 2) what gets excluded, and 3) how it’s presented.
Because while writing and photography are both vehicles for self-expression, they’re completely different vehicles. Asking if me if I write the same way I shoot photos is like asking me if I drive a truck the same way I paddle a kayak. It’s like asking me if I sing the same way I play the banjo. (Okay, I don’t actually play the banjo, but you get the idea.)
I can articulate my reasons for crafting sentences and paragraphs. I’m aware as I’m writing why I arrange scenes the way I do. I know I’m trying to amuse the reader, or distract the reader from something in the story, or foreshadow an event that will take place later, or reveal something about a character.
I can’t always articulate why I shoot a photograph. Sometimes there’s just something about the arrangement of the world that pleases me. Looking through a camera’s viewfinder allows me to put a border–a frame–around a chunk of the world. At that point it becomes about arranging the world within that frame. A step to the right, two steps forward, dropping down on a knee–all of that changes the arrangement of the world inside the frame. But I’m not always aware of why a specific arrangement pleases me. Afterwards, looking at the photo, I can sometimes perform a sort of autopsy on the image to figure out what I was seeing at the moment I shot the photo.
(Sorry…here’s a tangent. Autopsy is from the Greek auto, meaning ‘self’, and opsis, meaning ‘see’ or view’. It basically means ‘to see for yourself’. Since the late 17th century autopsy has been used to describe a forensic dissection of the body to see for yourself what caused the body to die.)
Anyway, having thought about the question ‘Do you shoot photographs the same way you write?’ I decided to do a brief autopsy on a few photos I shot recently. The first was shot while I was sitting drinking coffee and reading the news–the morning light coming through a window. The other two were just things I saw during a semi-short road trip to find a small town diner for lunch.
The first photo autopsy was easy. I was just pleased by the momentary arrangement of light and shadow, of lines and shapes. And it was momentary; five minutes later the earth had rotated enough that the light through the window had shifted and was no longer interesting. But THINK about that for a moment. That photo depends entirely on the alignment of the solar system. How cool is that?
I suppose the second and third photographs also depended on the cooperation of the solar system since all photography depends on light, but not in such an immediately obvious way. They’re photos of ordinary crap you’d see in the Midwest countryside. Some posts marking the boundaries of a parking area in a public hunting zone. A blue corrugated metal shed. Why were they worth photographing?
Okay, I’m going to get even more pretentious here. There was a French poet-essayist-philosopher with the cumbersome name of Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry (though he’s normally just called Paul Valéry). He wrote:
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.
That reads like a Zen koan, except that Valéry’s comment actually makes some sort of sense–or at least it does to me. The photo of the blue corrugated metal shed doesn’t depend on it being a blue corrugated metal shed. It’s ‘shedness’ is irrelevant. What matters is that it offers three different shades of blue, which pair well with the softer blue of the sky. What matters is the sharp angular lines of its shape, which contrasts nicely with the sinuous way the gravel road curves around it. It doesn’t matter that those three utility poles exist to distribute low voltage power to customers while keeping the cables insulated from the ground and out of the way of people and vehicles. It only matters that they provide a sense of balance to the overall image.
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. To forget the thing’s purpose, its use, its reason for existing. Those things can contribute to the complete effect of an image on the viewer, of course. I mean, the photo of the blue corrugated metal shed could be seen as a commentary on how humans have transformed the prairie by organizing its resources for commercial purposes. The photo of the posts in the parking area of a public hunting zone could serve as a reminder that early residents of the area hunted game in order to survive (and some still do).
But that’s all gravy. The photographs either work (or fail to work) on their own compositional merits. The words don’t always matter, and they shouldn’t. The visuals displace and supplant the words.
So there’s my answer. Nope, I don’t shoot photos the way I write. And more apologies, but here comes another pretentious moment. This is from TS Eliot’s Fragment of an Agon:
I gotta use words when I talk to you
But if you understand or if you dont
That’s nothing to me and nothing to you
We all gotta do what we gotta do
I’ve got to use words when I talk to you, but not when I show you something. But if you understand the words or images or if you don’t, that’s nothing to me. And really, it’s nothing to you either. We’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do.